Ovarian Cancer: Women Need to Know the Symptoms

Do you know the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer? Most women don’t.

Are you aware that while mammography screens for breast cancer and the Pap test for cervical cancer, there is no equivalent screening test for the early detection of ovarian cancer?

At a gathering of women executives in Toronto, these facts were met with the wide eyes and dropped jaws of disbelief.

Ovarian cancer, a disease that affects one in 70 Canadian women, is Canada’s most fatal gynecologic cancer. Each year, it claims the lives of 1,500 women. Here are some other notable statistics:

In 2004, 2,300 Canadian women were diagnosed with the disease – 60 percent of them between the ages of 50 and 79.

Nine out of 10 women diagnosed with ovarian cancer have no family history of the disease.

While the cause of ovarian cancer is unknown, it occurs more often among women living in developed countries.

Early diagnosis is key

When ovarian cancer is detected at an early stage and treated before it has a chance to spread to other parts of the body, the five-year survival rate is as high as 90 percent. For decades, however, it has usually been diagnosed at an advanced stage, when five-year survival is closer to 20 percent.

The reason: telltale signs of the disease – including bloating, increased abdominal size, fatigue and pelvic or abdominal pain – often are subtle. They can be common experiences during the menstrual cycle, and in later years, many women attribute these symptoms to aging.

For physicians trying to arrive at a diagnosis, symptoms can be non-specific; they can mimic menopausal or perimenopausal symptoms, irritable bowel syndrome and other medical conditions or diseases.

To increase public awareness, the National Ovarian Cancer Association (NOCA), now merged with Ovarian Cancer Canada (OCC) under the OCC name, launched an education campaign in 2005 -- entitled Turn Up the Volume! -- to help Canadian women and their doctors work together so this disease can be detected earlier and treated more successfully.

That’s good news to Marilee Little, 65, of Fredericton, who had surgery and chemotherapy following a diagnosis of Stage III ovarian cancer in May 2003.

‘I knew nothing about the signs and symptoms of ovarian cancer. I regret being so docile at the beginning. We all need to take full responsibility for our health and do whatever it takes to be heard.’

Although Little had persistent indigestion, bloating and abdominal swelling, she assumed they were part of getting older. When she developed vaginal bleeding, she sought medical attention. However, diagnosis took another three months, as uterine polyps were initially believed to be the cause.

Today, the grandmother of three, journalist and former editor of The Atlantic Advocate magazine, speaks to groups of well women in the Fredericton area about ovarian cancer. She presents OCC’s Listen to the Whispers (a combination video/live educational program) to women in the workplace, church groups and community groups. ‘I’m passionate about getting this information out to other women. I couldn’t not do it – that’s how I look at it.’

Lister to your body

Elisabeth Ross, CEO of OCC, said women must be vigilant.

‘Listen to your body and be persistent about reporting symptoms and getting them investigated,’ she said.

In the absence of a screening test for ovarian cancer, ‘women should have regular medical checkups and become educated by learning the signs and symptoms of the disease,’ Ross advised.

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